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March 20, 2005

Exposition, Chapter 5 (p. 93-102)

A Whispering Through the Branches
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Martin sat, amidst a protesting cacophony from the springs, on the bed.

"One afternoon, nearly a decade ago, I was surveying some land not too far from here when one of my tires burst on an inconspicuous road that I had taken mostly for the adventure of it. Well, a venture I had been seeking, and adventure I found, for I discovered adjoiningly that somebody had neglected not only to inflate my spare tire, but also to charge the batteries in my cellular phone. Somebody, incidentally, who is no longer employed by me.

"After a brief bout of fitful panic, I picked a direction and strolled down the road. It was terribly hot that day, and it was not long before the combination of bountiful sweating and the blistering rub of my expensive leather shoes induced me to rest on a fallen tree by the road. It bears mentioning, at this point in my story, that I was unversed in the ways of country hiking, and no sooner had I alighted on the log than it rolled over and pitched me careening down a deceptively steep decline. When I finally stopped rolling, I found myself so disoriented that I staggered randomly into the surrounding trees.

"This forest harbors many pitfalls and obstacles for the untrained woodsman. Consequently, by the time I stumbled upon the Pequod, I was bruised and exhausted. I crossed through the hatchway on my hands and knees, gasping for water. Inexplicably, I was driven to my feet by a spell of sneezing, and upon rising, there came to my ears the beautiful intonation of a piano — not to say that I'm remarkably susceptible to music: the beauty was in the emancipation signified by the beacon. Looking briefly at the trick picture in the entrance hall, I walked..."

"I don't mean to interrupt," apologized D., "but what do you mean by 'trick picture'?"

"Oh, you must have seen it... that stained glass monstrosity over the stairs? I call it a trick picture because I find it to be a great sacrifice of beauty simply in order to advertise the artisan's cleverness. Leaving a bit of glass to represent a sun that only fills the gap but once a year. Phah! What a waste.

"Well, anyway. Where was I?"

"You had just walked beneath the stairs, into the courtyard, I imagine."

"Yes. Yes, quite. Under the willow, a young man, who I later found out to be Nathaniel, was playing the piano. Sitting in various places and positions around him were John and Huck, whom you've already met, I believe, and a negro" — this word eked out forcedly from his mouth — "that called himself either George or Henry, dependent upon his mood. He, however, you will not meet here, for he no longer graces us with his presence."

"Why is that?" wondered the sole member of Martin's audience, who was a little bothered by the speaker's choice of words.

With a brusque statement, he informed her that that was the very story that he was getting around to telling, and went on. "Over the next score of days, I was bystander to more insightful discussions than ever a college professor participated in. Now, I've come to realize that it is a fact that all well-groomed persons above the working class exude an inherent power of intellect, but back then, in my youth, it seemed the books were alive in these disputants. Their opinions were not premanufactured. They were rebels of their own sort. Within reason, of course," Martin qualified.

"My God, I thought to myself, forgiving myself the oath, here is intellectual life! Here are the books come to life and electrifying the very air! By Nathaniel's advice, I read the book by Jack London that later would become my defining story. The tale so motivated me that I began reading the dictionary to improve my vocabulary and ability to express my thoughts — an occupation to which I've religiously devoted no less than five minutes of every day... the dictionary, I mean, not the other. This habit is only during my yearly residency here, of course, but a finer mastery of phonetics than mine I've yet to encounter." Martin nodded his head curtly out of pride in his achievement.

As if he had been awaiting a lull in Martin's oration, Huck stuck his head around the door frame and said, "I'll be makin' soup an' san'wiches fer lunch. Y'all game?"

D. smiled and told him that she was.

"No," proclaimed Martin, "I'm quite contented."

"Suit yerself," said Huck. Then to D., "I'll holler up t'ya when it's a-ready."

Martin shook his head incredulously at the interruption and, in shaking, shed his agitation. "Where was I?" he asked, squeezing at the bridge of his nose.

"Reading the dictionary."

"Oh. Yes. Well, it was while so occupied, or, rather, while resting after a particularly arduous study, extended by fully two minutes, that I tore my eyes from a cumulus cloud to give voice to my mind. 'Every line of the really great poets is an indispensable statement of innate beauty and truth,' I claimed.

"To which Nathaniel responded beguilingly, 'What makes you say that?'

"I thought for a moment and then explained that a poet whom every eminent personage of the literary world agrees is great would, by nature of his being great, be incapable of putting pen to an extraneous line, for it is the power and greatness of their writing that makes them great.

"'So,' came the infernal response, 'the greatness of the poems defines the value of the poet?'

"'On the surface it may seem so,' I insisted, 'but it is the poet who crafts the words and places them in such a way as to make them remarkable; from which accomplishment, the reader learns to define poetic greatness.'

"'Then it is the critic's ability to recognize the inherent merit of words that have been auspiciously placed by the poet, whom all agree is great, that makes of the critic a qualified judge of the extent to which the poetry exalts the poet?'

"I told him that, apart from my preferring the term 'analyst' to 'critic,' his assumption sounded reasonable. He could not, however, let the topic remain at this elevation and said, 'So what do you make of instances when two prominent analysts disagree?'

"'Well,' I rationalized, 'in any such case, it will not forever be dubious which of the two is the lesser, for, obviously, one must be wrong and one right.'

"Nathaniel then proceeded to fumble about for a retort by suggesting that poets who become famous years after they are dead must necessarily have been at least a generation beyond the readers of their time and somehow worked his way to the casuistic conclusion that either the poet's greatness must have been externally and posthumously imparted on him or the human audience must deny its ability to definitively declare that any poem or poet is great, or something to that effect. Ignoring his erratic logic, I submitted that since the poet must have been raised under the same literary principles, albeit perhaps with a more privileged education, as his audience, he could not possibly have intended to say more than humanity, even if delayed, would eventually be able to understand."

At this point in the discourse, Huck's voice poured over the banisters and into the room, and much to Martin's chagrin, D. stifled a yawn and excused herself and Jim, who had been snoozing obliviously, to lunch. At the bottom of the stairs, Huck asked her how she was finding Mr. Martin.

"Oh, he's very... pleasant," was the answer.


After she had eaten, however, D. found that she felt a throbbing aversion to returning for the consummation of Martin's story. Despite the pang of guilt that was aroused by this sentiment, and the fact that she could not discern the exact cause of her repugnance, she could not deny that it existed.

Huck birthed a chimera of hope by informing her that he was off to collect the remainder of his provisions. Reminding her that it was his own to do, however, and commanding the mistakenly exuberant Jim to stay with her, Huck departed alone.

Procrastinating yet a little longer, D. finally started toward her own room, but feeling guilty and rude for entertaining her first impulse, she eventually made her way to Martin's, utterly expecting him to be poised on the edge of the bed ready to pounce and accost her with his recital. Instead, she found him sitting at his desk gazing out the window, utilizing neither the paper in his typewriter nor the notebook in his lap. But as D. watched, Martin picked up the notebook, read a line, and put it down, lips moving as if he were trying to memorize something by repeating it over and over to himself.

Exhaling, she posed the question, "So where were we?"

Martin swung about in his chair and blurted, "This world is so ordered that money is necessary to happiness."

"Excuse me?" asked D., fairly certain that she was sorry to have returned.

Martin squinted his eyes, as if trying to decipher her question, and explained, "That is what I had been trying to explain to Nathaniel when George came ambling into the yard. He sat down, and I no longer felt free to speak my mind openly" — explaining, "he was the type that compels you to watch your words, so to speak. Nathaniel, unmoved by the third party, declared, 'It is not the being famous, but the process of becoming so, that counts.'

"This, of course, was poppycock. What could be the possible justification for writing that which no other person would ever be granted the opportunity to appreciate? 'No,' I told him, 'art must see print or it is no more than amusing.'

"Nathaniel protested that it would be a tremendous mistake to envision a world in which there are no objectives unfettered by the opinions of somebody else. To which silliness I avowed that culture is an end in itself.

"'What is culture,' he struggled, 'but the conglomeration of all human opinions?' And I decided that we had reached the limit of Nathaniel's ability to conceptualize the topic at hand.

"After a moment of silence, the very calm before the storm, a harsh cry of dogma crashed into the intellectualized calmness. 'All your culture does is crush us and keep us down,' professed George.

"I, of course, set out to explain to him that it was by virtue of culture that empires had been built, that so many people could be provided for in the world, and that it had even led us into space. 'Culture,' I told him, 'does not crush; it emboldens.'

"Nathaniel interjected that my folly was in confusing culture for education. To which accusation I contested, 'Education is indispensable for whatever pursuit one may endeavor to achieve, cultural or otherwise, but it is only a division of culture as a whole.'

"Again George interrupted, 'But your educational system teaches only how to live in your culture.'

"As I tried to explain to George that he was mistaking racial culture for true culture, which is inclusive of every constituent of God's kingdom, Nathaniel attempted to reconcile the difference by pointing out that, though I was on to something by forcing a distinction between the two, the teachers of our educational system were inherently limited in their perspective and, as mere guides to the chartroom of knowledge, as it were, could only describe those things that they had been culturalized to recognize.

"George, despite the fact that I don't believe that he had an inkling as to what Nathaniel's meaning was, nodded his head in approval. I put forth that, even taking him to be correct, adroitness in culture was the very tool needed to understand how to apply our knowledge.

"'Like two hundred years of slavery?' shouted George.

"'Why does it always return to slavery with you people?' I criticized.

"'Because slavery always ends in misery!'

"To which Nathaniel suggested that slavery had ended.

"'It may have ended for the white man,' came the confutation, 'but it is alive and beating at the souls of every African American alive. Only in the grave can we find equality.'

"Nathaniel told him that by taking such a stance, George and his people were frustrating any chance of alleviation.

"Ignoring me when I suggested that the only hope lay in creating a society in which the law of development could be annulled and in which every person of lesser advantage might eat as many times a day as he desired, George griped, 'How can we think differently when the effects continue to prevent us from even finding jobs? Do you think I'd be spending so much time here if I was able to find a career that gratified me?'

"Telling him that he wasn't going to find a career here in the mountains, Nathaniel explained to him that true rewards never landed in any man's lap, and if they did, then they weren't rewards, but charity. 'Get off your ass,' he said, 'and work just like any man of any color must do.'

"At this point, George was beginning to show signs of anger. 'That's easy for you to say, who've had every advantage of white society.' And Nathaniel, squeezing his hands together to abate his own growing rage, suggested that George had no idea what he did outside of this house.

"'What about this fat' — calling me a nasty name — 'here? He's never had to work a day in his life. He practically brags about his poor treatment of my brothers and sisters that he works to death as employees and soaks the life out of as tenants!'

"I began to protest this horrid accusation, but Nathaniel stepped in and defended me, 'That has nothing to do with you,' he stated. 'I guarantee that he treats with impartial pess-tif-er-us-ness [I haven't had a chance to look this word up yet, but it sounds grand] people of every race. The point is that you are wrong to use that as an excuse to waste away your life complaining. Go out and make something of yourself! Martin cannot help his advantages, nor should he be forced to make apologies for them, for he is no more than a triviality of means. [Doesn't that just sound so poetic?] But you have been granted the opportunity to become a saint in slime and may achieve the satisfaction of attempting to drag yourself from the mire into which you were born. Even were you to fail, still have you gained the self-fulfillment of the trial. But it is easier to bewail your position than to improve it. You could refuse to subordinate yourself to the unanimous judgment of mankind, but no, the truth is that you are lazy. Yours is a manifest burden and easily rallied against. It is a color that you are fighting — no less difficult an obstacle for being so, but unhindered by enigmaticism. I tell you that you are lazy and that you are afraid to discover that convenient skin does not preclude suffering and hardship. Hidden behind your belligerence is an apprehension that if you deny your skin dominion, then you will next be forced to be conscious of the fact that life is most often just plain hard no matter who or what you are. Much the more comforting to be fighting a word than a certainty of reality, and rather than better yourself and make of yourself an example, you succumb to that very word and make of yourself a nigger.'"

This last word Martin rasped softly under his breath as if reluctant to speak it, but, given the circumstances, reveled in uttering the forbidden name.

"I'm certain that the wisdom of this diatribe was beyond George's ability to comprehend because, on the instant, he jumped up and charged at Nathaniel. At first he had the advantage of surprise, and even got in a few skimming blows, but Nathaniel, by virtue of keeping his head, soon gained the upper hand, flipping George upon the ground and landing on his chest."

Martin squinted one eye sagely and accented the words with one corpulent index finger. "'I refuse to hit you,' he said. 'What good would it do? The point has already been made more potently than I could have conveyed it in words. I have now bested you in your own language, and you can hardly compete in mine. So where's your angle?'

"I, myself, couldn't help but pity George, as I do any human creatures that are less fortunately placed than myself, but I also couldn't help concluding that, since Nathaniel's and my thoughts were beyond him, so must we be beyond him. Nathaniel let him up cautiously, and we have never heard from him since.

"I must admit, though I believe that Nathaniel knows very much about very many things, his flashing insight and flaming uncontrol of genius prevent him from living down his working-class origin, and I lost a good deal of respect for him that day. I guess when one is raised as a child, one will only know the solutions of immaturity. And so, I couldn't help pitying him as well, a little, for he is without past, has only the imminent grave in his future, and exists in a bitter fever of living."

D. was stirred from the half-attentive state into which she had retreated over the course of Martin's oration by the harsh ringing of a spring-powered alarm clock. "Well," Martin announced, standing and clapping his hands together, "it is time for my daily regimen of study and exercise." He motioned to the door, "So if you please."

Entirely content to escape Martin's oppressive presence, D. roused Jim and made the journey back to her room. The sky above the protected courtyard was still gray, but a lighter shade.

Scarcely had she reached her doorway when Martin burst from his room and called across to her, "Do you know if there's any soup left?"

"I don't know," she responded. "Probably."

Nodding, Martin made his way toward the kitchen.


D. spent the remainder of the day reading and had nearly finished the book when Huck announced that dinner was ready. Bringing two folding chairs up to the northern tower, the two ate while watching the sun, which had broken from the clouds just in time to set. John had disappeared, as was, according to Huck, his wont to do, and Martin had paced around the house, occasionally stomping grandly to his room with a ceremonious annunciation that he was returning to work and typing erratically for several minutes. D. wondered how many times Martin had told the story that she had heard from him and whether it might be that same story that he was constantly typing, over and over, with very minor variations.

But then, she had more than ample evidence to support this conclusion.

Huck had passed the time between lunch and dinner with several bottles of beer pushed into the damp soil at the juncture of a cool stream, which sprang from the earth high up on the mountain, and the pond in which a fishing line drifted lazily at the water. The line had, apparently, been more profitable than the bottles, as evidenced by the facts that each of their plates sported an amply sized trout and that Huck had moved on to a large glass of vodka and cranberry juice. He had the air of a man slipping gently into the indolent undulations of a temporary summer retirement.

"So," he said, leaning back in his chair as the last fingers of red light slipped over the mountains, "I reckon ya haven't got yer keys back yet."

"No, not yet. The guy who could set me free has been mysteriously absent lately, and nobody seems willing to help me leave otherwise."

"He'll turn up 'venchally."


D. looks up at Huck as if to ask a question that will relieve the consternation in her face. Huck keeps his face in profile for a moment then smiles genuinely before raising his glass to his lips. Martin whistles to himself as he climbs laboriously up to the southern tower, looking quickly toward the purple horizon when Huck waves to him.

In the distance, two owls exchange questions.

The front door squeals open, and Jim can be heard charging from his sentry position below Huck and D. toward it. In the mild evening air, John's expression of surprise floats across the courtyard, seeming to rustle the willow's branches in lieu of the negligible breeze. D. laughs quietly.

But the branches continue to quiver long after Jim has returned to his station and John has found sleep in his chair. The tree trembles as if in expectancy, with labor looming. D. tilts her head as if straining to hear the groans of Nature waking up. Perhaps she trembles imperceptibly herself.

The forest bursts forth another cumulative bloom and thickens, solidifying. And D., just like a high flying bird who wonders that there could be anything dangerous hidden below the clouds, looks upon the interlocking branches that will soon disguise the earth with life and listens to the sounds of a house relearning to handle people.

Posted by Justin Katz at March 20, 2005 12:23 PM
A Whispering Through the Branches